September 11, 2014 Articles

Section Leader Paulette Brown Ascends to ABA Presidency

The President-Elect discusses diversity, membership, service—and her favorite old-school music.

By Andre' B. Caldwell

Section of Litigation Diverse Leader Andre’ B. Caldwell (Class 2013–2015) recently sat down for an interview with incoming American Bar Association President Paulette Brown of Edwards Wildman, Morristown, New Jersey.

Caldwell: Ms. Brown, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. First and foremost, congratulations on your nomination as president of the American Bar Association!

Brown: Thank you!

Caldwell: And not only president of the ABA, but the first woman of color to serve as president of the ABA.

Brown: Yes, that’s correct. Thank you.

Caldwell:  I’m curious—what made you decide to become a lawyer?

Brown: You want the truth? I honestly went to college to be a social worker because I wanted to help people. My college roommates, however, came to school with the intent to be attorneys. Over the course of the time we spent as roommates they slowly convinced me to look at law school. I knew that I could still help people as a lawyer and that’s what I have aimed to do since becoming one.

Caldwell: And when you say college, you are referring to Howard University, right? You went to law school at Seton Hall?

Brown: That’s correct.

Caldwell: Howard is a great HBCU with a great reputation! How did your attendance there impact your choice, if at all, to get involved in the ABA?

Brown: Howard has a great tradition of developing leaders. Their curriculum and ideals are centered on developing leadership skills, teaching self-worth, instilling excellence, and encouraging their students to always be on their “A game.” My interest and involvement in leadership began at Howard, where I served as president of the class, editor of the yearbook, and vice president of my sorority.

Caldwell: Speaking of Howard’s development of leaders, it is my understanding that Charles Hamilton Houston is one of your legal heroes?

Brown: “If you are not an engineer for justice, you are a parasite on society.” That’s one of my favorite quotes of his. Charles Hamilton Houston died well before his time.

Caldwell: Being that he was one of your legal heroes, how do you plan to emulate him and his philosophies through your presidency?

Brown: While I can’t officially reveal my initiatives as president, I assure you that I have plans to address the justice system in a way that would make Charles Hamilton Houston very proud.

Caldwell: Mr. Houston is known as the man who killed Jim Crow based on his quest to end social injustice. He stood tough in a time when racial inequities were ever-present. It is my understanding that you served as the president of the National Bar Association, which was formed in 1925 because the ABA would not grant membership to African-American lawyers. What does it mean to you to be the first African-American female president of the ABA?

Brown: My nomination as president shows that the ABA has evolved in a good way. This is such an incredible opportunity, and it is an incredible responsibility, and I look forward to what the future holds!

Caldwell: What do you see as the toughest issues that the ABA faces, and how do you plan to address them in your presidency?

Brown: The first major issue I see is membership. There are so many volunteer organizations out there and limited amounts of funds available to people. There are also many benefits of the ABA of which people are unaware. I hope to raise awareness about the ABA and all of the benefits it has to offer in an effort to increase membership. The second major issue I see is a need to make sure that the ABA will be a viable organization in perpetuity. It is such a great organization, but unless it continues to provide services and increase its membership, it will lose its significance over time. Again, while I can’t officially reveal my initiatives, I do plan to address these issues.

Caldwell: You practice employment law at Edwards Wildman in Morristown, New Jersey, right?

Brown: That’s correct.

Caldwell: Do you anticipate that your practice of employment law will assist you in addressing the issues you’ve identified and carrying out your initiatives as president?

Brown: I believe my law practice will have a direct impact. I represent companies and defend employment lawsuits, so lots of HR issues come into play. Representing companies allows you to review policies and assure that policies are properly put into effect. Sometimes in reviewing those policies, I see policies that may need revision to be more fair and inclusive, and of course I counsel my clients in that respect so as to prevent litigation. As the president of the ABA, I will continue the efforts of inclusion and make sure that the appropriate policies are created/revised and implemented.

Caldwell: Not only have you been a leader in the legal organizations in which you’ve been involved, but you’ve also been a leader in your firm serving as its chief diversity officer. How has that experience impacted you?

Brown: As the chief diversity officer, I have the opportunity to participate in the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals. I have seen lots of things and had lots of experiences, but the important thing about my experiences is that they have helped me realize that I have my own biases. No one is exempt from having some bias. I support the implicit bias work and research being conducted by the ABA as I believe it is very important. Everyone needs to identify and recognize their biases so that they do not let them affect their behavior.

Caldwell: As with every president of the ABA, the Section of Litigation always seeks to provide support and assist the organization. How can the Section assist you as president?

Brown: I would like to see a deeper dive into the implicit bias work that is being done right now. As I said, I think that’s very important and I would like to be invited to speak at Litigation Section meetings on this and other topics. I think it is important to look not only at what non-diverse people can do, but more broadly at what everyone can do. I also would like to collaborate with the Section on membership. I know that people speak of the “Litigation Section of the ABA” and “Big ABA,” but I want to remove that distinction. I want all components and groups of the ABA to be seen globally as the ABA.

Caldwell: Do you have any advice for young lawyers involved, or looking to get involved, in the ABA?

Brown:  I’m a fan of old-school music like Earth, Wind and Fire. I think my advice is best characterized by the title of their song “Keep your Head to the Sky.” I encourage young lawyers to be more broad thinking on where and what you can practice and not be so colloquial. Many young lawyers these days are concerned about the lack of jobs in a certain geographical area or about not being able to practice a certain area of law, but they fail to think about places outside this region where lawyers are needed. I encourage young lawyers to learn as much as possible about various areas of law and broaden their horizons.

Caldwell: What about any advice that you have for me and other diverse leaders of the Section?

Brown: I encourage you all to learn more about the committees and to get involved. Be sure to let people know that you know about things other than diversity.

Caldwell: That’s great advice and much appreciated! Ms. Brown, I couldn’t help but notice that you and I share a favorite quote—“To whom much is given, much is required.”

Brown: Absolutely! I have had enormous opportunities that I did not know I could have or ever dreamed of having. I have had the opportunity to monitor the first free and democratic elections in South Africa, I founded the Association of Black Women Lawyers in New Jersey and now I have the opportunity to be the president of the American Bar Association. I have been given so much that I feel it is necessary to share what I have learned and what I have done with others so that they can have the same enormous opportunities.

Caldwell: Ms. Brown, thank you for your time, for your advice, and for your future service to the ABA. I look forward to your presidency and wish you the best of luck!



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